What is a claymore?

The word "claymore" is derived from the Gaelic "claidheam hmor", meaning "great or broad sword." When exactly this term came into use is disputed among scholars of Scottish arms. The word claymore certainly refers to the classic basket-hilted broadsword in use by the 17th century. Whether or not the term was used to describe the large cross-hilted broadsword used in the Scottish Highlands and by Scottish mercenaries in Ireland from the late 15th to early 17 century is a matter of some debate, with respected experts differing on the question. Regardless of whether the word was used at the time to reference the two handed swords, it has been the accepted terminology for these imposing weapons since at least the Victorian period. In this blogpost we will be using the common parlance, not necessarily because we think it a historically accurate usage, but rather because it is the first thing that comes to mind today for the vast majority of people interested in these swords. We will discuss the basket-hilted claymores in a later post.  

Arms and Armor Highland Claymore

The Arms and Armor Highland Claymore

 

In its classic form, the claymore consisted of a straight, broad, double-edged blade, long diamond-section quillons angling toward the blade and terminating in quatrefoils, as below.

Quillion

The classic form of this sword also featured a quillon block extending to form a long spur on each side of the blade. Note that these spurs usually stood proud of the blade, as you can see in the second picture below. Although some people speculate that these spurs may have played a role in catching an opponent's blade, their true role is probably largely aesthetic, providing a gap for a scabbard to slide all the way up the blade, and showing off the hilt when sheathed. Claymores also typically featured a oval section leather-covered grip with wheel-shaped pommel.

quillion block

Note the extension of the quillon-block over the blade

 

claymore sideways

Note the gap between the blade and the spurs

 

The blade was generally shorter than the blades of Continental two-handed swords of the same period such as the German Zweihander, Italian Spadone, or Spanish Montante, which sometimes had blades over four feet long. Claymores typically had blades closer to 40 inches in length, with an overall length of around 56 inches. There are a few examples of larger outliers. Due to their size, these were substantial weapons that often weighed five pounds, give or take a few ounces.  

Although often thought of as the sword of William Wallace (as in the movie Braveheart), this form of two handed sword was not in use during his lifetime (~1270-1305).  Rather, it is a sword of the 15th-17th centuries.  

 

William Wallace

19th Century statue of William Wallace with Claymore

The claymore almost certainly developed from a late medieval cross-hilted sword that can be seen on some effigies and tomb slabs in the West Highlands and the Isles. The sword exhibited two of the characteristics found on the claymore, namely, the long, downward-angled quillons and the central part of the quillon block extending in a long spur. The dating of claymores is complex and imprecise, although there is a claymore of classic form depicted on a grave slab from Oronsay dated 1539. In the latter part of the 16th century, although retaining the characteristic form of quillon and blade, claymores sometimes had large spherical pommels.

effigy from Finlaggen

A medieval effigy from Finlaggen showing a sword resembling a proto-Claymore

Proto-Claymore style sword in National Museum of Archeology Dublin 

Proto Claymore style sword in National Museum of Ireland Archeology

A sword related to the claymore is known as the "lowland" form because of the fact that several examples came from southern Scotland. Lowland swords had angular, round-section quillons, the terminals arranged as turned knobs set at right angles; some have open rings affixed to the center of the quillons on each side. They retrained the feature of the quillon block extending to a spur on each side but unlike the claymore's, the spur was small and pointed. The pommels of these swords were large and spherical, the long oval-section grips being of wood covered with leather. One form of the Lowland sword had quillons in the form of an arched cross, and in the center a solid oval plate bent down as an extra guard for the hands. Although Lowland swords have been dated to the second half of the 16th century and those with arched quillons and plates have been dated to the early 17th, little evidence is at present available that would lead to more precise dating.

Lowland Claymore displayed in Edinburgh 

Lowland Claymore

The Arms and Armor Highland Claymore is available in either bright steel, or with a blued finish on the hilt.  It is 56" long with a grip length of 12", a balance point at 3.5" from the cross, and a total weight of ~5.2 pounds. It is a faithful replica of an original sword from the mid-16th century that is currently housed in a private collection.

Arms and Armor Claymore Blued

Highland Claymore with Blued hilt components

 

Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of the Oakeshott Institute.  He had given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.

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